This past week marked the fortieth-fifty anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war. The media coverage of the visit to the former American embassy in Ho Chi Minh City brought back memories , many images of desperate people scrambling up over the fortress wall of the embassy and then boarding helicopters that flew them out of the city, just as North Vietnamese Army Soldiers were advancing on the city.
The Vietnam War was a major life changing event for twentieth century America. Over fifty- eight thousand American military personnel died in Vietnam, plus thousands and thousands of wounded personnel, both physical and mental health injuries, including the ever increasing numbers of former military personnel who are suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD ).
Vietnam not only changed the United States, but the war in Vietnam changed my family.
In July 1969, my mother and I drove to Milton-Freewater, Or to visit my mother's cousin, Richard Gullixson and his wife Virginia. Milton-Freewater is a small town located in Eastern Oregon on the border with Washington State and the adjacent town of Walla-Walla. I remember as we drove to Milton-Freewater from Portland we passed miles and miles of golden wheat fields.
My mother told me that we would have to be careful what we talked about, because Richard and Virginia had just suffered the death of their only son Richard Jr. or Ritchie who had died in Vietnam in November 1968. Apparently Richard Jr. , who was a Private in the Army, had parachuted out of an airplane, his first jump, and he was shot during the course of his descent. His body was found along with the parachute dangling in a tree. He was twenty years old.
I remember that we arrived at Richard and Virginia's house.
I sat there and I didn't say a word. I drank my 7-Up and listened intently.
This was a lot for a fifteen year old boy to absorb.
Richard and Virginia were very gracious people. Richard was retired and he had worked for years for the Army Corps Of Engineers, primarily building hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River including the Bonneville Dam. Their house was beautiful.
The plan was for my mother and I to spend the night with the Gullixsons. I remember that I was told that I would sleep in Richard's room. I walked into his bedroom and it was literally a shrine to his memory complete the a large world globe, his baseball bat and glove on his desk. On the bed was a nice folded pair of Carolina blue pajamas. His room had not changed at all since the day he left for Vietnam. I remember Virginia said to me
"Well, I guess you will be our son tonight. "
I froze. I thought these poor people. They are in such pain and no one is helping them with the grief of losing their son to dying in the war. I thought to myself " this is really scary and strange but I guess I've got to do this in order to help them. " I remember that I wore Richard's pajamas and laid in his bed. I remember that I didn't get a lot of sleep that night.
Once again it was a lot for a fifteen year old to handle.
What Richard Gullixson's death did for me is that galvanized my opposition to the Vietnam War. I became very involved in the Anti-War movement and participated in several anti-war demonstrations in Portland, Or I knew that the suffering caused by the war had to stop, if for no other reason than to prevent future deaths of others like Richard and to prevent family members like Richard and Virginia from any needless suffering.
It really is no surprise that I became a healer working in mental health. The experience that summer of encountering war close up and personal will forever remain with me.
For years, after our visit, I wondered how Richard and Virginia were doing. I wondered if they were happy, I wondered if they had found any peace.
During the summer of 1974,my mother and I were invited to the wedding of Richard and Virginia's daughter Laurie. The wedding ceremony was held outside in the Shakespeare Garden in the Rose Garden of Washington Park overlooking downtown Portland. It was a picture perfect summer Oregon afternoon with a cloudless sky. Richard and Virginia looked happy.
Later at the wedding reception, I had my first beer ever with Richard. He looked like a proud father. He was beaming. I knew that he was very happy for Laurie and her new husband.
I was thinking about Richard Jr. I wanted to say something to Richard about how bad I felt regarding the death of his son, but I didn't . I did not want to spoil any happiness that he was experiencing now.
The fall of Saigon occurred a year later in April 1975.
The war had changed our lives.